by Lina Vashee
Pakistan’s education system is in urgent need of change: it ranks 119th out of 127 national education systems surveyed by the UN, and has a low literacy rate of 56% across all age groups. School enrollment is also low – there are approximately 7 million children out of school, meaning that one out of every ten out-of-school children in the world is from Pakistan.
There is a large unmet demand for quality education access, specifically for low-income populations, creating substantial opportunity for impact. Yet there are many complications, including a fragmented, highly rural customer base, pervasive poverty, and unclear returns on educational investments. Any solution attaining a significant scale would require close collaboration between funders and implementers.
I became familiar with these challenges while visiting Pakistan as part of a recent Dalberg engagement. Our team met with a diverse set of actors within the education sector to understand what is currently being done in the private sector to improve access to and the quality of basic education for the poor. Through these conversations, it became clear that private sector innovation has ample opportunity to address education in Pakistan in a scalable and sustainable way.On our visits, we discovered a world of small schools tucked away in bustling slum areas, providing accessible educational opportunities for the populations residing in these areas. The owner-entrepreneurs of these low-cost private schools take a business approach to their work, constantly thinking ahead, looking to expand infrastructure, improve curriculums, and boost student enrollment. These low-cost private schools presented a stark difference from the failing public school system. Teachers were present and teaching in every classroom, and students were eager to be attending school. Parents value their children’s education and have demonstrated a willingness to pay tuition in exchange for the hope of a brighter future for them.
The numbers support the thriving potential we saw on our visits. Higher exam results from private schools, as well as better teacher attendance rates, speak to the higher quality of private schooling. Between 1999 and 2009, low-cost private schools nearly tripled, from 36,000 to over 90,000 primary and secondary schools in urban and rural areas. These schools are largely operated by self-financing, small-scale entrepreneurs from the communities themselves, and are typically financially accessible for low-income populations, with monthly tuition fees ranging between $2 to $20 USD per student. Families tend to opt for this private schooling, even if it means paying more, because they feel it has the potential to bring better educational outcomes for their children.
Low-cost private schooling very well may be the brightest future for education for the poor. Although many of these schools are not recognized at a government level, and thus enrollment and achievement far too often goes undocumented, the mere presence and steady growth of private education for the poor is contributing significantly to the global goal of “education for all.” This alone is cause for celebration.
Lina Vashee is an Associate Consultant in Dalberg’s San Francisco office.